The Haiti stories: guest room

The Haiti stories: guest room

This story, unlike the other two in this series is fiction. 

They sleep in separate bedrooms. Even here where the living space is smaller than the maid’s quarters in Haiti, they don’t share a room. Father picks up extra cash driving Uncle Albert’s cab from ten at night till four in the morning. Father works the 12:00 to 8:00 PM shift as a doorman at the pink building on Lake Shore Drive. It takes him an hour to get home from work. He eats dinner in his room.  He stays there until Uncle Albert honks for him to come down to take over his cab.

Uncle Albert and Aunt Jackie live on the first floor. They own this building. Actually Aunt Jackie owns the building. Her father left it to her. Uncle Albert and Aunt Jackie have no children and they share a room. Uncle Albert is my father’s older brother. He left Haiti in 1975, five years before my father. My mother, sisters, brothers and I came to the United States in 1985. Aunt Jackie was the first American woman my uncle ever dated. He has dated others since they married.

Every Sunday at dinner, in Aunt Jackie’s apartment, Uncle Albert tells the story of the night he met Aunt Jackie. Uncle’s friend Roger took him to a disco the night he arrived in Chicago to go meet some grimells. “Oh I was so shock! I never see Black people like this. Oh. Oh. Oh. My God! Big Ah-fros, pantalons serrés! I want to run back to Haiti. Plus it so cold in May! I said Jesus, why did I leave my country? Then I see your Aunt Jackie. She look like une tit monde en dehors. Mais li blanche.”

“English, English!” Jackie would laugh.

“Oh yes. Sorry, these kids don’t speak creole. Madame Pierre, comment fait pitit ou pas vle palais creole ?" He would ask my mother why her children do not speak creole. She never answered when he calls her Mrs. Pierre. Pierre is my father’s first name.

We speak creole. Uncle knows that we understand everything he says, but Father wants us to only speak English.

“Tell your story.” My father didn't want to argue with Albert about why he wants his children to speak English.

This is our script.

“Oh yes. I see Jackie. She looks like a little white Haitian village girl. I say what is this white girl doing here in disco? Thank God my English was no good but Jackie speak creole better than Haitians. I said wow. She beautiful and speak creole. You will be my wife. Yes, I told her that night.”

“Yes, he sure did!” Jackie laughed loudly. I started rolling my eyes the fifth time I heard this story. This is my contribution to the play.

Jackie’s father Jerome was an American mulatto who owned a button factory in Port au Prince. Being a mulatto business man made it easy for Jerome to be quickly accepted into Haitian high society. He partied with politicians and other expats and received the privileges of being a fair skinned foreigner in Haiti. Within a few years he began exporting cigars from Jacmel into Florida and Sears brand radios from Chicago into Haiti. He married Marie a French actress who discovered Haiti when her cruise ship docked in Port au Prince for a shopping excursion. She found it “charming,” and just like that, decided to stay. She opened a “charming” fourteen room hotel decorated with French antiques that earned a reputation as the only place for foreigners to stay.

Jerome had a sixth sense; he always knew when to get in and out of a deal. He applied the same instincts to every aspect of his life. In July of 1957 when it became clear to him, but not to any of his friends, that Louis Dejoie would not win the presidential election, he knew it was time to leave Haiti. He watched Duvalier from afar for the past 10 years and saw his hunger for power. Duvalier made no secret of his hatred for the mulatto elite. Jerome recognized that he and his friends would be in danger when Duvalier won the presidency. He didn't wait for the election results. He stopped talking about politics and started working on plan B.  By September 1, 1957 Jerome shipped anything of value to his mother in Chicago, emptied his bank accounts and he, Marie and their 12 year old daughter, Jacqueline were on a plane to New York.

Jackie tells me stories about her childhood in Haiti, as if I didn't grow up there. She forgets that we were rich once. We didn't dine with politicians, but I had my own bed and a maid. I listen to her because we speak in French. She serves me une tasse de thé with cookies from the Swedish Bakery on the Northside. For a few hours I escape our crowded apartment and broken English. I fantasize about living with her and Uncle Albert. They share a bedroom. The other two are furnished in French antique waiting for guests. Uncle Albert stopped renting the basement apartment a few years ago and keeps it as his own.

Its 10:00 PM I hear Uncle’s horn, my father locking his bedroom door, his quick steps down the stairs, and the slam of the cab door. My uncle hates driving at night. “A bunch of drunk and spoil white American kids. Let your father deal with them. I don’t need money.” No he doesn't need money unlike my mother, he married well.

Uncle Albert likes driving the business men. He thinks they see him as their equal because they engage him in conversation about stocks and politics. If they are in his cab for more than five minutes, he tells them that he is an entrepreneur, and he owns his cab. He tells the business passengers about growing up in Haiti and making something of himself. Sometimes he doesn't accept their tips. He thinks that this impresses them. “No. No. You don’t tip the owner,” he would say. Aunt Jackie would be furious when he tells her these stories.

guestroom

When Uncle Albert comes home I have to leave and go back to our apartment upstairs. I pray that tonight is the night Aunt Jackie offers me a bed. I dream of sleeping in the pretty French suite. I want to smell the sheets. I want to sit at the little desk and drink from the blue glass on the nightstand. I want to turn on the pink lamp with a ballerina for a base. I want to be a guest in that room. My sisters Claudine, Judith and I share the smallest of the three bedrooms.  My brothers: Claude and Pierre sleep in the living room. One sleeps on the sofa bed the other on the cot. They take turns switching from bed to cot.

Our room is barely large enough to fit the two twin beds we pushed together to make space for me. I am too old to sleep with my mother and too big to share a twin bed with Claudine. Since I am the youngest I sleep in “the canal.” This is what we call the slit where the two twin mattresses meet. Claudine placed a folded blanket over the canal to make it more comfortable for me. It didn't help. The seams rub against my spine. Last week I pretended to be really sick and Claudine let me sleep on her side of the bed. That’s the closest I've gotten to my own bed since we moved to America.

Uncle Albert and Aunt Jackie must not know how we sleep. Why else would she send me back upstairs?

 

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